Innovative Community Response Team is Making a Real Difference

s6hqNI90_400x400By Matt Gleason
Mental Health Association Oklahoma

At a time when first responders have become de facto mental health professionals, Tulsa’s innovative Community Response Team (CRT) provides a more efficient and effective response to Oklahomans experiencing a mental health crisis.

Inspired by CRT founded in Colorado Springs, CRT is a mobile mental health co-responder unit that started in January 2017 as a one-day-a-week pilot from 10 am–8 pm. The big news is CRT has now expanded to a 30-day pilot that ends at the end of August.

The three-person CRT team includes an officer from the Tulsa Police Department, a paramedic from the Tulsa Fire Department, and a mental health professional from Family and Children’s Services.

This rapid-response team works together to de-escalate individuals in mental health crisis, divert them when appropriate from costly stays in jail, hospital emergency departments, and inpatient behavioral health hospital stays. This creates a more efficient utilization of fire, emergency medical services, and police services.

Partners include Family & Children’s Services COPES, Mental Health Association Oklahoma, Office of the Medical Director for Metropolitan Tulsa, Tulsa Police Department, Tulsa Fire Department and St. John Health System. This is also a part of the broader effort to reduce the number of people impacted by mental illness in jail through the national Stepping Up initiative.

The pilot project is currently operating without dedicated funding but from volunteered time and personnel from partners. So, the 30-day pilot program will gather essential data to prove the great value of CRT to secure long-term funding opportunities from public-private partnerships.

To put the 30-day CRT pilot into perspective, Michael Baker, chief of EMS Tulsa Fire, explains in this Q&A how things are going and why he’s excited about it.

Q: You’re just a few days into the 30-day pilot, but what are you already seeing out on the streets?

A: One thing we’ve noticed is the interaction between the three team members on the one-day-a-week pilot has been great. Everyone comes together as a team and it’s really good when you can work with like-minded individuals who are genuinely concerned about the individuals you’re caring for and believe in understanding how we can rapidly respond and handle the situations either through de-escalation or proper navigation into the other physical health system or behavioral health system. For us, it’s been really a great opportunity to form partnerships and alliances with other agencies that have grown into other projects. That part up front has really been successful. We’ve proven that concept. But we’ve had some struggles with being able to paint a good picture with data. The first question anybody asks me is what kind of data do you have that shows you are making a difference? We have some individual cases, but it’s very hard to get a solid data set that says, “Look, this is how many times we’ve been able to give someone good guidance and direction into some other service or make a referral.” So, that’s really the goal of the 30-day pilot. The other part is people move in different cycles. For instance, Tuesdays may be busy or maybe the weather may have something to do with it. I’ve been out on 11 calls in a 10-hour day. I’ve been on days when we made just three calls. But we don’t have that long-term pattern over 30 days to look at. We only have Wednesdays, so getting that understanding of human-behavior patterns and time to be busy is also important.

Q: I know people are focused on the data that will come from the 30-day pilot, but tell me about the impact it will have on the people it serves.

A: For any individual who receives a response from CRT, what you get is three individuals with different sub-specialties of expertise that come together to address your issue right then.  So, initially, you can observe a person who may be in crisis, they may think they’re in crisis, or they may be needing some kind of assistance, and they’re getting the whole team’s expertise right there. Someone is looking after their medical needs also their behavioral health and social needs, and then we also have a security component. Everyone is really working together so you can’t get any better response. That’s the thing: Everyone is treated and respected as an individual and their case is unique. It’s a little bit of a softer approach. The presence of the three people on the team can take an individual who is really in crisis and maybe step it down just a little bit. I’ve seen people who have gone from what appears to be a fairly agitated state to a point where they can stand there and have a real conversation. Then we will hand them a bottle of water or some Gatorade, or take care of their pet, or something like that. But what it does is really begin to meet their basic human needs. The whole team of specialists is right there on their side. There’s none of those, “Hey, I need to call somebody here or get a card for an appointment.” The answers are there. If we can’t figure it out, one of the people can call and start the ball rolling. I think that every individual that we have touched receives a personalized level of service.

Q: When this 3o-day pilot ends, what do you hope to have accomplished?

A: That we were really able to make a difference in somebody’s life. Second thing is we were able to impact the demands on public safety and keep officers on the street and keep ambulances and fire apparatus on higher priority calls. Last, but not least, we were able to properly navigate individuals to the right resources based on their need. If we can answer those three questions in the affirmative, then I’m happy and I think it’s successful. 

Q: Then what happens to ensure CRT continues to grow and thrive into maybe an everyday service throughout the community?

A: Jail’s not the answer for people in a mental health crisis. We want to deliver that message that CRT works both to funders — we’ll have the critical data to apply for grants — and to elected officials who we will tell, “This works and it’s a worthy opportunity to improve the well-being of Tulsans.” Like I said, everyone asks me what the data looks like and how are we making a difference. Although there are a lot of intangibles, they want those numbers and they want to be able to say, “Hey, look what they did in 30 days!” I think we’ll have a huge impact.